“Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”



Badges? Certification? Can these replace college?

Or is this a false binary?

The problem, I think, is that we no longer know what “college” means and end up conflating differing entitites.

Or, maybe we simply have conflicting ideas of “college.”

One vision of “college” centers on a Deweyesque vision of education as concerning the person. Another sees sees education simply as a benefit to an employer. The former sees education as a necessary aspect of citizenship in a democracy. The latter sees it as the gathering of economically valuable skills.

What strikes me about the second of these is the calculated move behind it, of responsibility for training being transferred from the workplace to the classroom. In the past, aside from specialized vocational education and post-graduate education, American education has been governed by an Enlightenment ideal of education as a civic responsibility, not economic value. Today, we are moving to a point where education is only valuable if it transfers into quantifiable monetary gain.

One of those with what I can only see as a meager and short-sighted vision of education is Kevin Carey, a think-tank maven with very little real experience as an educator (not unusual, today, when most discussion of education is led by people whose practical experience in the field is limited). He has a new book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere and an op-ed in The New York Times. A promoter of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), he feels that they have failed because they don’t offer “official college degrees.” After all, he claims, they “provide access to world-class professors at an unbeatable price.” What’s the problem with that?

Nothing. But books have been doing that for centuries (let’s elide the question of what a “world-class professor” is for the moment except to say that these high-profile professors have rarely come to fame for their teaching skills). Chautauquas have been doing it, too, for more than a century. So have correspondence courses. None of these, however, has been extolled as, alone, a provider of a complete education. They have sometimes been a necessary stand-in for a college education, something for people unable to go to college, but they have never been meant as a generalized replacement.

Carey avoids this broader cultural question of who gets educated and how by turning his attention to “badges,” certifications based on “specific skills and knowledge, backed by links to electronic evidence.” My first reaction to this is to point out, in a snarky manner, that links are not themselves sufficient proof of anything and that “electronic evidence” is only as good as, say, an avowal on Fox News. But we’ve also had certifications for years, skills-based training in fields as diverse as plumbing and health (I have one from New York City in Food Handling from my days running a café). Though Carey says that all sorts of organizations are “experimenting” with badges, well, they aren’t much of an experiment: Scouting has used them for generations.

“The most important thing about badges,” he writes, “is that they aren’t limited to what people learn in college. Nor are they controlled by colleges exclusively.” OK, and the most important thing about the sun is that it rises every day.

Certifications aren’t what colleges are about, for the most part, and a new emphasis on certification is not going to change either the value of a college education or the way it is perceived. Carey conflates college degrees and his badges, saying that college degrees are difficult to interpret whereas badges tell potential employers exactly what someone can do. An intelligent employer, however, is looking for something other than skills but for people who can acquire the skills necessary to particular situations and who continue learning as they work. This is something that a liberal-arts degree provides and that no badge will.

Surprisingly, Carey undercuts himself, saying his college courses “are lost to history,” implying that certification, somehow, keeps things current. It does not. And that aggregate from the past probably does more for Carey today than any badge he may have earned.

More than badges or “digital credentials that are also built for the modern world,” what we need today are real learners, people who can approach a situation and find ways of dealing with it successfully, who are explorers beyond the bounds and restrictions of any badges or certifications which are, by their very nature, backward-looking (they can only handle what has already been established; nothing about them can possible encompass evolving possibilities). Rather than serving the needs of a rapidly changing digital age, emphasis on badges and certifications of the sort Carey advocates can only prepare students for yesterday.

Preparation for tomorrow takes much more than that, it takes vision and flexibility—essentials to a type of education that Carey mistakenly conflates with training.